Getting there was hellacious. We faced two major traffic blockages and two major downpours. We were rear-ended — just a tap, no damage. We ran over a large mysterious object. Our windshield wipers stopped working midway through the second downpour.
And, quite frankly, Xy is not a great traveling companion. We had a number of arguments, including a highly comical fight about the merits of Christmas music. Xy despises such music, but I’d made four tapes (six hours) of weird Christmas music to listen to on the trip. (I was inspired by Liza.) This conversation ended with an agreement to skip any Christmas celebration entirely in 2005. We’ll see how that goes.
We had a really good Vietnamese meal in Jacksonville, Florida, and stayed at a Days Inn north of town where the water stank to high heaven. I took a shower and it made my hair stink.
The next day we made it to Kiawah Island, South Carolina. It’s a posh resort island. You can’t just drive in; there’s a gatehouse, and you need a pass. There weren’t many people there at Christmas time, so it was an island full of empty summer homes. As my dad said, it’s a place for people who don’t have to worry about money.
But the ocean is the ocean, and when I stood on the beach staring out at it, I knew I was looking at a vista that hasn’t really changed for thousands of years. That did my heart good. Being on the Atlantic beach in winter reminded me of scenes from one of my favorite books, Mockingbird by Walter Tevis. Xy was keen to go down to the beach at every opportunity, day or night, rain or shine. She collected shells, starfish, sand dollars, sponges and driftwood. We saw one or two tremendously large horseshoe crabs, still alive at the waters’ edge.
The weather sucked. It was wet and cold and damp and nasty. But, of course, we didn’t come for the beaches or the weather. We came to be with each other. Despite my trepidations, that did my heart good too. Not because I love all these people so much — I don’t really know them, seeing them so infrequently — but because of the sense of continuity and shared history.
My cousin Tami said it well: “I always dread these things beforehand, but then when I get there, I remember how nice it is just to be with the family.” Something like that.
Being surrounded by family gave me a renewed sense of who I am and where I come from. I’d like to say it helped me understand where I might be going as well, but that would be pushing it.
Other people had more trouble getting there than we did, because when the rain that we encountered coming off the Gulf hit the cold air coming down from Canada, it became the Blizzard of 2004. My sister and her family couldn’t get out of Indianapolis at all; she was very disappointed.
But thirty of us made it there. Eleven households — three major branches of the Seddelmeyer family. We stayed in three separate villas, all a short distance apart. And we cooked for each other, which was a great way for people to come together. My jambalaya was consumed with apparent gusto.
Everyone went to Charleston for church on Christmas Eve, except for Xy and me. I still don’t feel comfortable participating in worship services for a religion I don’t believe in. I enjoy seeing old traditions in practice, but there is little provision made for nonbelievers in such churches. It seems supremely disrespectful to gawk at the sacred observances of other people. So I choose to stay away.
On the secular front, I discovered to my delight that I have at least a few relatives who share my political perspective. In fact we seem to be a substantial minority, perhaps a third or a quarter of the adults. I actually heard someone mention, as a casual aside, that all drugs should be legalized. Another person asserted that he was (gasp!) not a capitalist.
My favorite remark came when my cousin’s husband was describing the lack of Bush signs in Portland during the recent election season. My aunt (his mother-in-law) said, “Yes, but all the best houses had Bush signs — the people who keep the economy going.” There may have been a fair amount of intentional irony in this comment, but I believe the underlying sentiment was genuine, and it indicates the orientation of the family’s other faction. It also underlines the fact that this is, by and large, a very prosperous family; some branches of the family are wealthier than others, and this will be an increasing source of tension for future reunions.
But I don’t want to overemphasize the political aspect. Most of my family is pretty apolitical and would prefer not to talk about such matters. But perhaps for those very reasons it felt liberating to me to realize I was not the only one skeptical of global capitalism.
Xy won a bet with me: The family did indeed sing “Happy Birthday Jesus” before Christmas dinner, just as she remembered from ten years ago in Jackson Hole. I seem to have blocked that memory. It conjures images of Full Metal Jacket.
On the way home, Xy and I finally got to eat some South Carolina Barbecue, at Duke’s in Summerville. Perfectly delicious. We also made a stop in Athens, Georgia, to visit the Tree That Owns Itself. Then we drove like demons to get back to New Orleans before one o’clock the next morning. Turns out we missed the first Christmas snowfall here for over fifty years!